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Tinghui Ye, who goes by Alex, 42, wrote his Canadian citizenship exam only hours before this portrait on Spadina Rd. in Toronto on June 27, 2012. The four-year resident of Canada, originally from China, is hoping that he passed the exam and will become a Canadian citizen. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Tinghui Ye, who goes by Alex, 42, wrote his Canadian citizenship exam only hours before this portrait on Spadina Rd. in Toronto on June 27, 2012. The four-year resident of Canada, originally from China, is hoping that he passed the exam and will become a Canadian citizen. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Who benefits when new immigrants are held to high language standards? Add to ...

Holding settled immigrants – already employed or otherwise functioning as part of Canadian society – to high language standards isn’t logical, say two Canadian academics who study immigration policy.

While skilled workers obviously need a solid grasp of an official language to work here, that’s not everyone’s role, said Sharry Aiken, associate dean and professor at Queen’s University’s law faculty, who teaches immigration and refugee law. “They’re already living within our society, they’re already participating in Canada in whatever way they are, whether it’s working [or] managing a household and raising children,” she said.

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But Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney says an official language is essential for any citizen.

“We decided as Canadians that citizenship has value, it has particular meaning,” Mr. Kenney said. “It means full participation, or the ability at least to fully participate in our political community, which requires the ability at least to fully understand what’s going on in one of our two languages.”

Where Mr. Kenney and his critics disagree is whether it’s fair to deny citizenship because of language ability when individuals have already been allowed to live in the country for years.

“Saying, ‘Well, you’re good enough to live here and pay taxes but not good enough to vote,’ all I think that does is enhance alienation,” Prof. Aiken said, adding it may be easier to become proficient in a language once someone becomes Canadian and is able to fully settle.

She suggests mandatory community service might be a more meaningful method to instill civic values.

Afrooz Lahsaee, who was born in Iran, passed the test on her first try two years ago, after studying at a Canadian university. "When I got my citizenship, I felt like, ‘Okay, I’m someone now … I’m considered to be a Canadian where I have equal rights like everyone else,’ " she said.

Her mother recently received Canadian citizenship without taking the test because she’s over 54, exempt from that requirement. But Ms. Lahsaee said she’s not sure if her mom, who wasn’t educated in Canada, would have been able to pass.

University of Toronto politics professor Phil Triadafilopoulos, who studies immigration and integration, said he believes language evaluations are “useless” and should be done away with altogether. But with increasing popularity at home and in the United States, Australia and United Kingdom, he said he knows that won’t happen.

Prof. Triadafilopoulos noted that his parents, who emigrated from Greece, and many other Canadian immigrants were able to call themselves “Canadian” before being proficient in an official language. “The question becomes, do you need a certain level of English or French to become a Canadian citizen?”

Editor's Note: Afrooz Lahsaee was born in Iran. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.

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